On Wednesday night, Pitt fans around the world rejoiced in the firing of polarizing Athletic Director Steve Pederson. It was a time for celebration and jubilance as the Panther nation saw an ineffective leader get removed swiftly and perhaps justly by new Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.
However, its safe to say many Pitt fans would be remiss to not look at the bigger picture in Pederson’s removal. It would also be a good time to debunk many of his myths.
Pitt has had a long and sordid past with big-time athletics and history shows, the University has not had the stomach to play in the big game. Queue in the one foot in the water analogy here.
The truth is winning comes at a cost. The winners in college sports all cheat and everyone who is not in denial knows it. And by cheat, I mean receive improper benefits from fans and boosters to pay for the best players. Its been this way for as long as anyone can remember and Pitt too is and was a glorious participant.
Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State didn’t just get lucky to make this year’s first-ever college football playoff. They bought their way in. This is not solely found in college sports but also in professional sports as well. I won’t go down the path of why the Yankees won 27 world titles or why the Boston Red Sox won 3 since 2004 but couldn’t win jack before 2004 when the current ownership (John Henry) took over. Everyone knows why and frankly its not germane to this story.
The four playoff schools are simply conducting business and that business is dirty. I’m sure many will argue none of this cheating can be proven or traced. Please, spare me the details. I don’t care but I get it. Only an idiot would deny what’s happening – past or present. However, this where conducting business (i.e college football) and the University of Pittsburgh have conflicting interests.
Pitt truly doesn’t want to play this dirty game. In fact, for most of our history has done everything to avoid it. While this sordid tale is mostly about football, we’ll touch upon the Pitt basketball program too.
So let’s rewind the tape. Let’s rewind the long tape. This won’t be a short story.
In 1938, Jock Sutherland, Pitt’s greatest football coach who won 5 national championships, resigned as Wikipedia cites “after years of struggling with the University for sustained financial support, because the school’s Chancellor, John Gabbert Bowman, instituted a policy of de-emphasis for the football program, eliminating athletic scholarships, student athlete stipends, and the recruiting funds. Bowman’s moves, which resulted in Sutherland’s departure, were controversial among students and supporters of the football program.”
So what did Sutherland really want? A recruiting budget. A formal process to pay players a small wage to pay for living expenses. Nothing illegal. Nothing under the table. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s right that’s exactly what the Power 5 conferences are proposing today and exactly what Pitt isn’t a huge fan of despite being a Power 5 Conference school.
Pitt would prefer the cheap and easy approach to winning. Don’t worry, this may sound familiar after a while too.
After Sutherland was ousted, Pitt floundered in football. We had a period of brief success from 1955-1965 under head coach John Michelosen, Sutherland’s former QB on the 1936 and 1937 National Championship teams. Reaching two Sugar Bowls (both losses to Georgia Tech in ’55 and ’56) and guiding perhaps the more infamous “No Bowl” (due to the events of JFK’s assassination) 1963 Pitt team that went 9-1, Michelson brought some respectability back to Pitt despite being an unemployed failure as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1948-1951.
Don’t worry, hiring former players, unemployed coaches and administrators or promoting assistants within Pitt is and was not just an isolated incident of 1955. More on that later.
Fast forward to 1968. Former Pitt Chancellor Wesley Posvar somehow got tired of losing. Tired of the embarrassment. So he put the first piece of the puzzle together and hired Pitt’s greatest AD ever – Cas Myslinski. After years of losing money and nearly folding the football program, Posvar and Myslinski carved out a plan to compete and win.
Up first, Cas insisted that Pitt raise donations. He did just that. What started out as merely a small booster fund (more or less) became the epicenter of Pitt’s football success and eventually became the bane of Pitt’s existence. That fund was known as the Golden Panthers and raised less than $200K annually by the mid-1970s and ballooned to over $1 million dollars annually by 1982. Sounds like chump change today but back then it wasn’t. It was enough to play the game, the real game of winning in college football.
It raised enough money to find a legitimate head football coach. After 3 straight 1-9 seasons under the comedy of Dave Hart from 1966-1968, Pitt hired Division 2 Waynesburg (where he went 19-1) head football coach Carl DePasqua and he promptly went 13-29 at Pitt. There were times during the Hart years that Pitt would run the clock even when the ball went out of bounds just so the contest would end mercilessly. That’s how low the Panther program sunk.
Enter Johnny Majors from Iowa State in late 1972. A legitimate Division 1 head coach and runner-up to Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung (Notre Dame) as a tailback himself with the Tennessee Volunteers. Majors was given carte blanche to turn Pitt around. And of course, the Golden Panthers were there to see him succeed.
Majors even commissioned a local Pittsburgh artist named Bob Gessner to design a neat little logo commonly referred to as the “Pitt Script” to be worn on the Pitt football helmets. A logo, by the way, which was purposely meant to look like William Pitt’s actual signature and used (in various other renditions) off and on throughout Pitt’s history dating back to the 1920s. Its also worth noting that Gessner was a Pitt grad and friend of Beano Cook, the Pitt’s long-time sports information director, who became famous on ESPN years later.
Back to football. With the re-branding in place and Golden Panthers money at his side, Majors first found a legitimate recruiter. Enter Defensive Coordinator and Assistant Head Coach Jackie Sherrill, a little known defensive backs coach with Majors at Iowa State.
As a former graduate assistant under Bear Byrant at Alabama, Sherrill learned from the best. And he was so determined to bring talent to Pitt that he wouldn’t take no for answer.
Perhaps the biggest moment in Pitt football history came the day when a small, thin running back from Hopewell High School (Aliquippa, PA) named Tony Dorsett decided on his college destination. Sherrill had dinner with the Dorsetts the night before and even slept in his car outside their home waiting for Tony to emerge with his decision the next morning.
Lets just say Sherill made sure Tony was a Panther. We can all speculate on how and why. We can even pretend Tony wanted to turn his beloved hometown college team around because it was a feel good story. A rags to riches story if you will. But Dorsett chose Pitt over 100 offers and Pitt was 1-10 in 1972, the year before.
Majors and Sherill brought hundreds of recruits to Pitt during this time, especially since there were no scholarship limits like there is today. Out of those hundreds, Pitt found depth and plenty of it.
It took only 3 more years and behind Dorsett’s greatness, and some tremendous JUCO recruits I might add that Sherrill secured, Pitt demolished Georgia in the 1976 Sugar Bowl 27-3 and won the National Championship. Ironically, Jackie himself never got a ring. He went on a 1 year sabbatical to become the head coach of the Washington State Cougars in 1976, probably thinking he would never become Pitt’s head coach because Majors would never leave.
By 1977, Pitt was a powerhouse. Low and behold Sherrill came back to Pitt as head coach after Majors left for his “dream job” back at his alma mater Tennessee. Don’t worry Pitt fans, hiring former assistants and seeing coaches leave for “dream jobs” probably happens again in this story.
Sherrill amassed so much talent at Pitt that from 1979-1981 he went 11-1 three straight times. He even pulled the same stunt he did with Dorsett to secure a big-armed local QB from Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic named Dan Marino, who was drafted to play baseball with the KC Royals.
Ok so Marino turned down major league baseball for Pitt. Seems like incredible luck! Oh yeah, did you remember the Golden Panthers?
The Pitt 1980 team alone eventually produced 7 (that’s right 7) first-round picks in the NFL. Talents like Mark May, Jimbo Covert and Russ Grimm, who like Dorsett left Pitt somehow after 4 years without graduating (i.e. getting a degree). That was strange, eh?
Sherrill was beloved by his players and assistant coaches, where legend has it that two of them (Dave Wannstedt and assistant head coach & defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson) were fired at half-time during the 1978 Tangerine Bowl for discussing their new jobs at Oklahoma State in 1979.
The money flowed in from the Golden Panthers and so did the big-time recruits. Talents like Sal Sunseri, Bill Maas, Chris Doleman and Bill Fralic. Its also worth noting that Myslinski was pressured several times during the 70s to demolish Pitt Stadium and move the Panthers to 3 Rivers Stadium. He told the doubters to shove it. Myslinski somehow got the notion that playing on-campus football was far more critical than a modern, multi-purpose stadium with no college atmosphere. Sound familiar Pitt fans?
By the end of 1982, Pitt had to once again make a big decision. Sherrill wanted more power and a bigger recruiting budget. Pitt had the money and the opportunity.
Instead, Pitt chose to balk. Sherrill became the AD and head football coach at Texas A&M instead for $1.7 million, a number considered outrageous at the time. For some bizarre and unknown reason, Pitt didn’t even enforce the $2 million buyout in Sherrill’s contract either.
So rather than conducting a full blown search for a legitimate Athletic Director, Pitt went the cheap and lazy route and hired internally.
Not only did Pitt push out legend Jackie Sherrill and for that matter, Myslinski (who was also shown the door in 1982 after 14 years in the role), the University instead moved Dr. Ed Bozik, assistant Chancellor, into the AD role.
Lets let that sink in for a second. We went from two men who understood football to Bozik, an academic egghead, to run Pitt athletics.
Bozik of course promptly hired Sherrill’s defensive coordinator and former Pitt player, Foge Fazio, in 1982 to replace Sherrill. Foge was the popular choice amongst many of the Pitt players to replace Sherrill. Lets see, former Pitt player and assistant promoted to Head Coach via campaign of Pitt players. Weird, isn’t it?
As nice of a guy as he was, Foge was a disaster as head coach at Pitt. He even led the 1984 team, pre-season ranked #3, to a 3-7-1 record. He did, though, beat Penn State 31-11 at Penn State that year. Paterno and the Nittany Lions got revenge a year later by beating Pitt 31-0 at Pitt Stadium in Foge’s last game at head coach in 1985.
Bozik actually conducted a semi-decent national search in 1986 and landed former Cincinnati and Kansas head coach Mike Gottfried. With the help of the Golden Panthers, Gottfried landed talent.
Players like Sean Gilbert, Keith Hamilton, Mark Stepnoski, Curtis Bray, Burt Grossman, Tony Siragusa and Craig “Iron Head” Heyward all came to play for Gottfried at Pitt.
But when push came to shove, the killer B’s (the nickname given to Dean Billick, Ed Bozik and eventually Dean Mary Briscoe) all feuded with Gottfried and eventually fired him in 1989, shortly after Bozik gave him a lifetime contract that Pitt had to pay many years thereafter for.
The Killer B’s accused Gottfried (and his staff) of giving players improper payments and also having a secret relationship with the Pitt women’s cheerleading and dance coach. All of which were counter to Pitt’s self-image. Pitt even had self-reported NCAA sanctions (the only time in school history actually) under Gottfried in 1987.
It was so bad that the Killer B’s even suspended starting QB Darnell Dickerson for the entire 1988 season for “academic” reasons, which Gottfried hotly contested at the time. Dickerson would return to Pitt in 1990 as a WR but was never the same player after that.
The Killer Bs that decided that Pitt would join the Big East basketball conference in 1982 and promptly began the process of destroying Pitt football. Not only were small-time, cheap investments pumped into the Pitt football program, but the Killer Bs even let Pitt Stadium erode beyond repair in the years following.
Nonetheless, just before the 1989 John Hancock Bowl, the Killer Bs came to blows with Gottfried. They were even pushed (by the players like Alex Van Pelt) to hire Offensive Coordinator and QB Coach Paul Hackett to replace Gottfried. The Killer Bs listened.
Lets see, another Pitt coordinator (Hackett) promoted and pushed into the role by the Pitt players. See a trend?
Hackett was promptly a disaster and 13-20-1 in 3 seasons as head coach at Pitt, despite having a staff filled with great assistants like ESPN Monday Night Football announcer Jon Gruden, long-time Cincy Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and current Green Bay Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy.
In 1992, after Pitt allowed former player and assistant coach Sal Sunseri to coach the final game at Hawaii, the University was once again at a crossroads.
Either start fundraising and rebuild a new Pitt Stadium or find a cheaper, easier way out. Take a wild guess what Pitt decided?
There was even plans to create something called the Convocation Center, a hybrid Dome Football and Basketball complex that would replace Pitt Stadium and the OC Lot.
For the time being, Pitt tried to recapture the magic of the 1970s by rehiring Johnny Majors in 1993. Jackie Sherrill was also highly considered for the job and even flown in for an interview by Chancellor Dennis J. O’Connor. However, Sherrill’s past was too risky for Pitt.
It was also cheaper and easier to hire Majors (who was recently forced out at his alma mater Tennessee). It goes without saying that Majors was given very little financial support by the Pitt Administration. Pitt Stadium was in disarray and the athletic facilities were a complete joke. He was promptly forced out at the end of 1996 season after going 12-32 in 3 years.
Meantime, the Convocation Center plan never materialized. After Bozik was fired, Pitt Athletics was under the leadership of former football coach Oval Jaynes as Athletic Director from 1991-1996.
Jaynes could get nothing accomplished during his time at Pitt. The constant rift between the Jaynes and his pals at the Golden Panthers were at complete odds with the Pitt Administration academic mission.
So by 1996, Pitt decided to replace Jaynes with former assistant athletic director for football operations at Tennessee (1993-1996), Steve Pederson. Johnny Majors recommended Pederson to Pitt in fact.
Prior to that, Pederson was Tom Osborne’s recruiting coordinator and assistant from 1982-1986 at Nebraska and became a stock broker and assistant at Ohio State between 1988 and 1993.
Pederson looked at the Pitt job and seized the opportunity to place his own stamp on the program with assistance from his new friends, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran.
Together (yes together) all 3 men decided to destroy everything about Pitt football they despised.
First, in 1997, the Golden Panthers were canned in favor of something called the Panther Club. This move seemed to be in name only – it wasn’t.
It meant no outside boosters would have any say or influence on the future direction of Pitt sports – particularly football. The Golden Panthers were a dirty organization by any objective measuring stick.
Second, the Pitt Script logo and school colors (Royal Blue and mustard gold at the time) were ditched in favor of a Navy blue and Vegas Gold combination complete with a Dinosaur-looking Panther Head logo by graphic designer Peter Moore. Pitt football no longer looked like Pitt football, it looked like some odd-stepchild of Notre Dame and Navy with what many called a dinosaur-looking Panther (aka DinoCat) on its helmets. In the process, Pederson insisted Pitt be rechristened “Pittsburgh” because he believed the average Pittsburgher would embrace the team – not just Pitt alumni or long-time fans.
Third, because it ruffled Nordenberg’s feathers, Pederson was asked to change the school’s fight song. Change, as in totally eliminate the chorus Fight, Pitt, Fight because the academics at Pitt didn’t like the fans, students and alumni changing those same words to Penn State Sucks. It didn’t fit the squeaky clean Pitt image. Silly I know, but still control over every aspect of Pitt football was critical to these 3 men.
Last, and most controversial, the 3 men convinced the Pitt Board of Trustees to demolish Pitt Stadium and move Pitt football to Heinz Field, effective for the 2001 season. In its place, Pitt would build a basketball arena with help from major funding from John and Gertude Petersen (no relation and different spelling than the AD Pederson)
So myth #1 debunked, Steve Pederson did not alone have the power to move Pitt out of Pitt Stadium. He got buy-in from the Pitt Board of Trustees who made the short-sighted decision to take football off-campus at Pitt. The same Board of Trustees that contained former Pitt football players.
The reason it was short-sighted was because there’s no replacing an on-campus football stadium in college football. It’s indispensable. The atmosphere, the tradition and interest in college football (particularly for alumni) is far greater on-campus than off-campus.
Yes, there are maybe a handful of schools, UCLA comes to mind, that have succeeded miles away off-campus. But that list is very short and UCLA is the exception and not the rule.
And if Pitt had simply tried to raise the funds and build a new Pitt Stadium (instead of taking the short cut), it could have had both a new football stadium and a new basketball arena.
So Myth #2 debunked, Pederson didn’t raise the money to build the Petersen Events Center. The money from the Petersens fell right into his lap.
He did however hire Ben Howland, then head coach at Northern Arizona, along with his assistant Jamie Dixon in 1999 to ressurect the Pitt basketball program. Pederson was advised to do so by Sonny Vaccaro, the sports marketing executive that insisted Howland was a rising star.
Back to football. It was incredibly convenient that down the road, the Rooney Family (owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers) were also pushing for a new stadium to demolish 3 Rivers Stadium at the time.
Since the state of PA wouldn’t approve the necessary funds to give the Rooney’s their wish on their own, Pitt climbed aboard the Steelers quest to get public bonds approved to build Heinz. It worked.
In retrospect, Heinz Field was hastily constructed and practically thrown together. Unlike its incredible neighbor PNC Park, the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, that was carefully planned, designed and conceived, Heinz Field isn’t and wasn’t elegant on any measurable level by NFL standards. In fact, it’s probably one of the poorest designs of any modern NFL stadium complete with crappy materials and a half-baked view of Pittsburgh.
From day one, Pitt students complained about the horrid bus scene departing Heinz to get back to Oakland on game days. Pederson, of course, did nothing to fix the situation. He would also often lie about actual attendance at Pitt football games and say the number he reported was based on tickets sold, not actual attendance.
After he decided to hire Walt Harris, QB coach at Ohio State, to become Pitt’s head coach in 1996, Pederson constantly meddled with the football program. He even threatened to fire Harris several times during his tenure in favor of the likes of Ron Zook.
Harris, though, brought Pitt back to respectability during his 8 year tenure and went 52-44 including 6 bowl appearances during that time. He even led Pitt to it’s lone BCS appearance in 2004, a 35-7 thrashing by Utah when it was known Harris was on his way out. Perhaps his greatest feat, though, was landing Pitt legend Larry Fitzgerald in 2002 to play football here.
Pederson even launched a “Strikeforce” Marketing campaign that attempted to capitalize on Harris’ West Coast offense. The campaign even included Torch Cut Pittsburgh lettering and Panther tooth symbols on football helmets and merchandise. It failed miserably as a marketing campaign to connect with Pitt fans.
Ultimately, Pederson too never got the chance to fire Harris because he left for his “dream job” at Nebraska to become the AD at his alma mater in 2002.
Even later, when Jeff Long was the AD, he too never fired Walt Harris either, he simply didn’t renew his contract. Many thought it was because of comments made by his agent Bob LaMont who said “Pitt is not a major power and is not one of the top 20 jobs in the country.” Frankly, it was hard to dispute those comments at the time and even today.
Ironically, Ben Howland would also leave Pitt for his “dream job” at UCLA after Pederson had already left for his “dream job” at Nebraska. Sonny Vaccaro was instrumental in helping Howland land at UCLA too.
Naturally, Pitt basketball players (like Brandon Knight) lobbied for assistant head coach Jamie Dixon to resume control of the Pitt basketball team. Weird, isn’t it?
Nordenberg and Cochran briefly considered Pittsburgh-native Skip Prosser (Wake Forrest’s head coach at the time) for the job. However, Prosser balked because news had emerged that the ACC would soon raid the Big East conference to take Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech and he thought the Big East Conference would fold out of relevance.
So instead of conducting a thorough and national search for a coach, Pitt decided to take the cheap and easy approach by promoting Dixon, who didn’t have an ounce of head coaching experience. That decision worked out, luckily for Pitt. Enter Jeff Long as Pitt’s AD.
Long boosted athletic donations by requiring all Panther Club members to donate for the right to purchase men’s season basketball tickets. He even tried to change the DinoCat logo that Pederson commissioned Moore to create with what became known as the DinoSeal logo as Pitt’s primary icon.
Long even jettisoned Pederson’s “Pittsburgh” marketing approach and created the Pitt Block logo in 2007.
The Pitt Block logo dates back to 1930s but this newer version was arched to provide a more modern sleek look.
It was Long who had during this period secured the funding and the land to build the Petersen Sports Complex (not the basketball arena – but rather the Olympic facilities – baseball, soccer, and softball).
Meantime, after 5 years at Nebraska (2002-2007), Pederson was fired. This was mainly because he alienated boosters, former players and fans there. He wouldn’t even allow former Nebraska greats on the sidelines during games. Again, he meddled as a control freak.
Many believed Pederson was fired solely because he failed to hire a winning football coach at Nebraska. Instead, he selected Oakland Raiders head coach Bill Callahan who promptly went 27-22 (including 5-7 in his last season) with the Huskers from 2004-2006. Pederson wanted to change Nebraska from an option-running team to a wide-open West Coast program that Callahan supposedly mastered. Again, he wanted to place his stamp on the program and failed.
In any case, Myth #3 debunked – Pederson did not get the funding or secure the land for the Pitt Olympic Facilities. That was done during Jeff Long’s tenure. Pederson just presided over the actual construction.
That’s because on December 1, 2007, the very day the Pitt football team upset #2 ranked and heated rival West Virginia 13-9 on National TV in Morgantown for the 100th installment of the Backyard Brawl, Nordenberg and Cochran re-hired their friend, unemployed Steve Pederson after Jeff Long bolted for Arkansas. An unemployed administrator hired by Pitt? Say what?
To start things off with a bang, Pederson renewed the contract of Dave Wannstedt, who was unemployed and fired by the Miami Dolphins earlier when he has hired by Long and had actually gone 16-19 (with zero bowl appearances) in his first 3 years at Pitt to an extension.
Meantime, at some point early in the 2008 season, Pederson reluctantly agreed to use “Sweet Caroline” (based on student feedback), the long-time Neil Diamond song used at the Boston Red Sox home games, as Pitt’s official end of the 3rd Quarter rally cry. While the students and some Pitt fans love it, it’s become more synonymous with Pitt students exiting Heinz Field for the buses than anything else. Again, remember that bus issue?
In regards to Wannstedt, though, many Pitt fans didn’t think he deserved an extension but the Pitt Administration wanted Pederson to extend the former Panther and head coach to maintain stability. They also had the belief he would turn things around.
They were right. Wannstedt promptly went 26-12 in his last 3 seasons at Pitt, including a 19-17 bowl win vs North Carolina in the 2009 Tire Bowl.
The turning point came in 2010 after Wannstedt went 7-5, including ridiculous losses to UCONN (a 30-28 road loss), Miami (a 31-3 blow-out at home) and West Virginia (35-10 at home).
Pederson once again tried to gain local Pittsburgh fan interest with a new marketing slogan called “My City, My Panthers.” This was aimed at the average Pittsburgher to embrace Pitt as the local team. A small advertising campaign was launched featuring such players as Dion Lewis and Jonathan Baldwin running from Oakland to Heinz Field. A newer version was launched in 2012 featuring Aaron Donald as well.
Anyway, while most Pitt fans wanted Wannstedt to make staff changes, like removing DC Paul Rhoads, Pederson outright fired Wannstedt in December 2010.
Myth #4, Wannstedt was fired by Pederson because of his record at Pitt. No, Wannstedt was fired because of off the field incidents such as DE Jabaal Sheard throwing a heckler through a window.
Problem was, Pederson had no plan to replace him.
Enter Mike Haywood, then head coach of MAC champions Miami of Ohio.
Haywood had perhaps the most absurd press conference in Pitt history. Complete with a suit purchased at Kmart, Haywood rambled on and on with no emotion and made some bizarre remarks about taking naps before games and getting Pitt to play like Freddy Krueger.
Pederson seemed so incompetent in locating Haywood that he hired the Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search Firm to source him as a candidate.
Some argue that lots of ADs use Search Firms to find qualified football coaches. The truth is most don’t. Most are capable of sourcing candidates on their own. Pederson needed the help.
Haywood then put a choke hold on his girlfriend and mother of his children and was promptly fired by Nordenberg two weeks later. Was that Pederson’s fault? No, not directly. However, he hired a search firm that didn’t conduct a thorough background check to know that Haywood had domestic incidents when he was an assistant at LSU.
Many argued Haywood was hired because it was cheap to do so. Perhaps. This author believes it was was more because Pitt wanted someone to instill discipline and honor back to the Pitt program. Winning was the least of the reasons.
It was only fitting that Haywood would himself chokehold his girlfriend.
Haywood was such a public relations disaster that Pederson had to scramble to hire his new coach.
Enter Todd Graham in January 2011. Graham was a fast-talking Texan who had already jumped ship on a number of jobs (such as Rice to Tulsa) in a very short timespan. To many people around Pitt, he was proverbial square peg in a round hole. And he wasn’t Pederson’s preferred choices – Al Golden (now head coach at Miami) or Mario Cristobal (then head coach of Florida International and now OL Coach at Alabama).
Graham installed a wide-open spread offense to a team that was built for the power running game.
The result was a disaster. Graham bolted Pitt after one 6-6 season. Pitt lost recruits and depth was razor-thin on the roster. Many around Pitt believe it was because his wife hated Pittsburgh and also because Pederson meddled far too much in the program. At the same time, Pederson refused to open the checkbook on facilities or recruiting for Graham. Sound familiar, Pitt fans?
During 2011, though, was perhaps the most significant moment in Pitt football history since winning the National Title in 1976.
Pitt was offered membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). On the very day the Panthers blew a 27-10 lead to Iowa and lost 31-27, Pitt announced it had accepted the offer.
Myth #5 – Steve Pederson guided or led Pitt into the ACC. No, if the media actually bothered to do the actual research, Athletic Directors have no such power.
Conference Membership is decided at the Presidential and Chancellor level. The decision to add Pitt was suggested by an expansion committee within the ACC that presented to the Presidents which schools to offer.
Boston College was the reason (not Steve Pederson) Pitt was offered membership into the ACC. BC rejected any offer to UCONN, which was apparently the second target behind Syracuse in 2011. Yes, the very school Pitt fans viewed as Judas for bolting the Big East Conference 7 years earlier. Ironic, wasn’t it?
Back to football. After Graham bolted, Pitt was once again searching for a head coach.
From all reports, Steve Pederson was marginalized in a “Search Committee” to source suitable replacements.
The Search Committee was comprised of Pederson, Mark Nordenberg, Jerry Cochran and Donna Sanft. They didn’t have to look far.
Rather than conducting an exhausting national search for a head coach, the Search Committee instead got a tip from Barry Alvarez, AD at Wisconsin, who reached out and suggested his up and coming Offensive Coordinator, Paul Chryst.
Ironically, Alvarez (from Western PA himself) was passed over for the Pitt football head coaching job in 1989 when Paul Hackett was hired.
Chryst was hired by Pitt on December 22, 2011.
From the start, Chryst tried to bring assistants over from Wisconsin including LB coach Dave Huxtable to become Defensive Coordinator.
After that move failed, he then promoted Pitt’s secondary coach Matt House to Defensive Coordinator to replace Huxtable in 2013 instead of conducting a national search.
While its not unusual to promote assistants, the move to promote House was viewed by the Pitt fanbase as cheap and throwing in the flag.
By 2014, the promotion was a colossal failure. Not only could House not recruit, but his defenses were often out of position and too slow to compete in the ACC.
Pederson tried to stop the bleeding of the dwindling interest in Pitt football during Homecoming Weekend on October 25th. In a desperation move, despite all signs it wasn’t his idea, he attempted to resurrect the Pitt Script logo. While he received the credit for bringing the beloved icon back (Pitt football helmets only), most Pitt fans never bought it was his plan.
The Pitt Script logo was re-launched in a hasty and unplanned fashion. To this day, there’s very little merchandise to support the brand re-launch. In sum, Pederson executed a bush league marketing plan.
After 3 years on the job, Chryst was finally lured home to Wisconsin by the very same man who offered him to Pitt – Barry Alvarez. Chryst was introduced as Wisconsin’s head football coach on December 17, 2014.
Was Chryst’s departure Steve Pederson’s fault? No. Not at all. There was nothing he could have done to prevent Chryst from leaving Pitt for Wisconsin.
But there was simply no way Pederson (unlucky or not) to have a stake in hiring a 4th head football coach since 2010.
Patrick Gallagher, Pitt’s new Chancellor of only 4 months, promptly fired him on the same night.
Myth #6 – Steve Pederson was fired solely for his failure to hire successful football coaches at Pitt and Chryst’s departure was the final straw. No, the deeper reason is Pederson simply lost touch with the Pitt fanbase and couldn’t fill Heinz Field. Donations have remained flat (if not decreased) and attendance at Pitt football games has been abysmal despite the move to the ACC. He continued to lie about Pitt football attendance right up to the last home game at Heinz Field in 2014. Even prominent alumni and former coaches (Wannstedt) and Pitt players (Bill Fralic) blasted him in the press as did the local media.
Pederson’s marketing tactics like StrikeForce, My City My Panthers and the bush league return of the Pitt Script were rolled out poorly and never really put fans into seats at Heinz Field.
The Panther Club also failed to reach any significant donation levels under Pederson in order to make Pitt a true player in college football.
In fact, up until Pitt received its share of the ACC Conference money (nearly $20 million) in 2014, Pitt hadn’t even fully funded all of its sports (i.e. provide scholarships to every Pitt athlete across all 17 Men’s and Women’s sports).
So while the final chapter may have been written on Steve Pederson at Pitt, the past perhaps tells us more about what to caution against in the future for Panther sports.
Gallagher and Pitt cannot afford to cut corners and expect to compete in big-time football. It’s a dirty business that Pitt needs to either jump in with two feet or stop pretending to be in the game.
While Pederson was an extremely poor marketer (i.e. too many logos, icons, brands and color combinations), Heinz Field attendance generator and fund-raiser, he alone is not at fault for the failure of making Pitt a success in football.
Finally, whoever Pitt hires as AD and football coach, the University needs to evaluate the long-term Prospects of remaining off-campus at Heinz Field. Money is available and with the right vision, so would the land to create a new on-campus home for Pitt football, track & field and even the Pitt Band for that matter.
Furthermore, and perhaps more immediate, Pitt needs an AD that knows how to market (with consistent branding and merchandise), how to increase donations year after year on a significant level and knows how to get fans to actually attend games at Heinz Field. Its a tough task for a city school like Pitt but it can be done.
Pitt needs to build long-term fan loyalty and pride and right now it has very little of either.
Pitt cannot simply waive the white flag and accept that Heinz Field attendance will be always be poor except when Notre Dame, Penn State and the likes of Florida State are in town. That too is bush league thinking.